Public Access

Visit the Commission’s Coastal Access Program web page to obtain additional guidance on addressing coastal access and recreation, including a web page dedicated to California Coastal Trail information.

Public Access and Recreation Basics

The Coastal Act requires protections for public access and recreation to ensure continued availability of coastal access opportunities for the public and, where possible, free or low-cost overnight accommodation for coastal access.

The Coastal Act includes the following provisions:

  • Every coastal development permit issued for development between the nearest public road and the sea should include a finding that the development is in conformity with the public access and public recreation policies of Chapter 3.
  • Maximum public access and recreational opportunities should be provided when they are consistent with public safety, private property rights, and natural resource protection.
  • Development should not interfere with the public’s right of access to the sea where access was acquired through use or legislation.

Coastal Act Policies Related to Public Access

The Coastal Act policies that address coastal access and recreation include Sections 30210 through 30214, 30500(a), and 30604(c). Important sections of the Coastal Act to consider for Caltrans projects include:

  • Coastal Act Section 30210 states: In carrying out the requirement of Section 4 of Article X of the California Constitution, maximum access, which shall be conspicuously posted, and recreational opportunities shall be provided for all the people consistent with public safety needs and the need to protect public rights, rights of private property owners, and natural resource areas from overuse.

  • Coastal Act Section 30211 states: Development shall not interfere with the public’s right of access to the sea where acquired through use or legislative authorization, including, but not limited to, the use of dry sand and rocky coastal beaches to the first line of terrestrial vegetation.

  • Coastal Act Section 30212 states: (a) Public access from the nearest public roadway to the shoreline and along the coast shall be provided in new development projects except where: (1) it is inconsistent with public safety, military security needs, or the protection of fragile coastal resources, (2) adequate access exists nearby, or, (3) agriculture would be adversely affected. Dedicated accessway shall not be required to be opened to public use until a public agency or private association agrees to accept responsibility for maintenance and liability of the accessway.

  • Coastal Act Section 30213 states: Lower cost visitor and recreational facilities shall be protected, encouraged, and, where feasible, provided. Developments providing public recreational opportunities are preferred.

Public Access considerations when developing your project and preparing to submit a coastal development permit

When applying for a CDP from the Commission or a local agency for a project in the coastal zone, it is necessary to clearly describe any project benefits to public access or recreation in the project description, as well as depict these project elements on the project plans. Examples may include new or improved pedestrian or bike trails, public parking, or new road connections that will facilitate public access to and along the coast. However, it is also necessary to evaluate any potential impacts the development may have on existing coastal public access and recreation. The Commission’s directive under the Coastal Act policies is to ensure that projects either protect existing access and recreation, such as existing trails or beach access points, or provide for new appropriate access and recreation where necessary, such as adding bike or pedestrian paths or creating new access connection points. Topics of importance that routinely come up during the CDP application process include: loss of public parking, the need to incorporate California Coastal Trail (CCT) connections, and the need to address other multimodal trail connections or coastal access points.

To help determine your project’s consistency with applicable access and recreation policies and its potential for approval, consider the following information as part of your CDP process:

  • Baseline: The Commission will first evaluate whether the proposed development has the potential to impact existing public access or recreation. For example, consider whether the project, including safety-oriented projects, may have impacts the Coastal Commission may consider to be adverse, such as:
    • Closure (temporary or permanent) of formal or informal vehicle, bike, or pedestrian routes used to access the shoreline or upland recreation areas or preclusion of future access opportunities
    • Displacement (temporary or permanent, including timing restrictions) of formal or informal parking resources used to access the shoreline and/or coastal recreation areas; consider parking removal that may occur due to roadway restriping, signage, or fencing
    • Time restrictions or user fees for public access and/or recreation facilities
    • Encroachment onto a public beach or encroachment onto an accessway where there may be potential prescriptive rights
    • Changes in traffic patterns along critical access corridors
    Additionally, depending on the level of potential impact, when evaluating the baseline project information, the Commission may request technical data and plans such as traffic and parking demand studies; inventories and maps of existing and planned access and parking; public access plans describing and depicting how the public will gain access around the construction site or to public trail connections; as well as information on historical use of access or parking, as applicable. Coastal Commission staff has provided Caltrans staff a GIS data layer that identifies approximately 1,530 existing public access points that can be used to inform pending and future projects regarding public access connections.

  • Alternatives Analysis: As a result of the potential impacts to public access from the project, it is critical to provide an alternatives analysis as part of the application process that shows how temporary or permanent impacts to public access caused directly or indirectly by the project have been avoided or minimized and/or how the project has incorporated access components. For example, if a project removes formal or informal parking, describe the ways that the project design or siting considerations have minimized the removal, or how alternative parking nearby (e.g. within ¼ mile) or transportation demand management measures have been incorporated into the project.

  • Avoidance and Minimization: The analysis of project impacts to coastal access and recreation and alternatives should include details of how siting and design measures were considered to reduce impacts and mitigate to the greatest extent feasible. Consider feasible avoidance and minimization measures that may be incorporated into the project description, such as:
    • Pedestrian or bike trails
    • CCT connections
    • Parking for beach or coastal recreation area access
    • Provisions for or expansion of public transit
    • Signage

Public Access and the California Coastal Trail

It is important to evaluate whether the project can incorporate any feasible components of the California Coastal Trail (CCT). The CCT is a network of trails for walkers, bikers, equestrians, wheelchair users, and others along the 1,200-mile California coastline. It is currently more than half complete. It takes many forms, including informal footpaths, paved sidewalks, and separated bicycle paths.

Except for many bicycle strands, the CCT is ideally designed to avoid being located on roads with motorized vehicle traffic. In locations where it is not possible to avoid siting the trail along a roadway, attempts should be made to locate the trail off the pavement, within the public right-of-way, and separated from traffic by an above- or below-grade safe distance or by physical barriers that do not obstruct, or detract from, the scenic views and visual character of the surroundings. In locations where the trail must cross a roadway, safe under- or over-crossings or other alternative at-grade crossings are considered in connection with appropriate directional and traffic warning signage.

Because of this CCT patchwork, many different entities have responsibilities for trail development and maintenance. Legislation in 2007 specifically directed the Coastal Conservancy to coordinate development of the CCT in consultation with the Commission, California Department of Parks and Recreation, and Caltrans, and also required Regional Transportation Planning Agencies with jurisdiction over portions of the CCT to include provisions for it in their Regional Transportation Plans.

During the development of a PID, the CCT should be considered in the analysis of the project area and included in the appropriate project scope of work. Early contact with Commission staff can help identify existing and potential trail connections and multiagency opportunities for CCT development. Information on existing and planned CCT segments, where appropriate, should be provided to be considered for inclusion in a project’s purpose and need statement. This will advance Caltrans’ efforts to comply with the requirements for Complete Streets in all projects. Additionally, early coordination may also help identify funding mechanisms such as sponsorship and partnership funding to support development and construction, as well as to ensure long-term maintenance and management of the trail segments.